Last week, at WPP's Stream unconference, I joined a discussion on cognitive computing. It was one of many diverse and inspiring sessions all linked under the general theme of digital technology and forward thinking ideas - so many, in fact, that it is physically impossible to attend them all - but this one in particular stood out for me. The reason it resonated so strongly went beyond the (quite amazing) capabilities of the technology; what it was really about was the relationship between technology and human beings.
The discussion started with a rejection of the dystopian future that many people (novelists and filmmakers paramount among them) seem to subscribe to in which technology has overtaken humanity's capacity to control it and works towards our demise. The contention put forward, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that this future is a fallacy for one simple reason: we won't allow it to happen. No matter how skilled we become at building hardware and software that revolutionises our sense of what is possible in the world - one sees several examples of such things at Stream - we will not challenge the fundamental fact that technology is here to assist humanity and, whatever its impact on human behaviours and protocols, humanity's best interests will always prevail. Not everyone at Stream agrees with this contention (another fabulous feature of Stream is the passionate debate that goes on) but amongst the attendees that I spoke to, this did seem to be the majority view.
Of course the debate around the risks and benefits of technology is nothing new. The industrial revolution gave stage to that discussion for over two hundred years and it would take a pretty narrow definition of technology to argue that it hasn't always been so. But what is clear, as technology advances at the pace of Moore's law, is that the way in which the debate is chaired, facilitated and resolved is different now than ever before. Just as technology today is about fast, fluid, interactive and adaptive evolution, so is the debate that surrounds it. Whatever you think is true right now will be somehow different the following day.
There's a wider context here too because any discussion around technology, more specifically the commercialisation of technology, is really a discussion about the nature of business. In a Stream discussion that I hosted, we sought to put some definitions to the elusive concept of Big Ideas. We discussed the romantic notion that innovations such as Watt's steam engine or Edison's light bulb came about as result of some weekend tinkering in a garden shed, and the reality that these were in fact the product of large organisations with large workforces and well-thought-through revenue models that spent years finding ways to commercially mass-produce these products. In these cases, and today, developments in technology are intrinsically tied to developments in business, and only through this relationship do meaningful benefits get delivered to society.
Yet big business has a fair number of dystopian detractors too, with plenty of people intent on believing that corporations are out to corrupt humanity and that the very notion of a large commercial enterprise is an inherently bad thing. These fears are equally unfounded, for the same fundamental reason: that we won't let it be so. Corporations and businesses aren't automatic entities; they are human systems and, with only rare exception, are motivated and self-regulated by human good. But that doesn't mean that there isn't significant room for improvement in the way that organisations behave and operate today. And here I think there is much that business can learn from how technology behaves.
To operate effectively today, organisations need to work in more fast and fluid ways. They need to rely less on rigid structures and unflinching attitudes and think more about working in dynamic, iterative systems. They need to learn how to adapt at pace, maintaining dialogue and continuous learning with their markets and stakeholders. They need to think creatively and imaginatively, from the top down, about how to identify and address new opportunities across the whole enterprise. They need to break up their decision-making systems that rely on purely rational analyses and inject more instinct and emotion to how they think. They need to become cognitive corporations that think, learn and adapt in a fundamentally more human way.
Those working on the future of technology have called it right: the future is not something that we will find, it is something that we must choose to create. Stream opened my mind to the future of technology. And, I hope, to the future of business too.
First published on The Huffington Post, 30 October 2014.